A judge making custody determinations in a divorce case in Mississippi will place the best interests of the children at the center of the inquiry. Mississippi law presumes that it is in a child’s best interests to maintain enough contact with each parent to foster the development of a close relationship. A court will make an exception to this general rule if a parent has perpetrated family violence, either through repeated incidents or through one incident that resulted in serious physical injury.
To determine what custody arrangement is in a child’s best interests, courts in Mississippi can consider any factors relevant to parenting. Mississippi case law has specified some of the most important factors, many of which are based on the developmental and emotional needs of the child. These include the strength of the emotional ties between parent and child; the desire, ability, and relative skill of each parent to provide primary child care; the moral fitness of each parent; and the stability of each parent’s employment and home environment. Courts favor continuity of parenting arrangements, so judges will take into account which parent was responsible for ongoing child care prior to the separation and will also consider the child’s adjustment to home, school, and community. Other factors set include the age and health of both the parents and the child, the sex of the child, and each parent’s job responsibilities. A judge will allow a child who is at least 12 years old to state a preference as to custody arrangements.
There is no requirement for judges to give the different factors equal weight. On the contrary, a judge may consider one or two factors to be of greatest importance, and these may end up controlling the decision.
In addition to factors set out in case law, there are certain other circumstances Mississippi courts consider important. For example, judges favor continuity of important family relationships and will try to keep siblings together. Judges also look very unfavorably on any parent whose actions interfere with the child’s relationship with the other parent. A parent who interferes with the other parent’s relationship with the child may receive less parenting time than a parent who is able to encourage a positive relationship between the child and the other parent.
Legal custody refers to a parent’s authority to participate in major decisions regarding a child’s health, education, or general welfare. Physical custody refers to the time that a child is residing with or is under the care and supervision of a parent. Joint physical custody does not necessarily require an equal division of time between parents; any parenting schedule may be appropriate, provided that the child is with each parent for a significant amount of time. If both parents request joint custody, a Mississippi court will usually presume that it is in a child’s best interests. If the parents don’t agree, or if the application of the factors specified above indicates that joint custody is not in a child’s best interests, the court may award any combination of joint legal custody and joint physical custody, or may award sole custody to one parent. Courts generally find joint legal custody to be most appropriate when parents are able to cooperate well with one another and live fairly close to each other.
When one parent is awarded sole or primary physical custody, the best interests of the child usually require sufficient time with the other parent to allow the development of a close and loving relationship. A judge will restrict a parent’s visitation only in unusual circumstances, such as when the parent’s behavior poses a risk to the child. In such a case, a court may impose conditions on visitation, such as participation in mental health counseling or a drug treatment program. In some cases grandparents in Missouri are also entitled to visitation, although generally a court will not grant a grandparent as much visitation time as a parent.